You are probably already familiar with greenwash, which happens when businesses market themselves as eco-friendly without proven facts behind their claims.
Similar to greenwash, bluewash occurs when a large proportion of an organization's activities doesn't comply with essential socially responsible policies.
Consumers all over the world are starting to care more about how the products they buy are being made. They care about the environmental impact of their purchases and the well-being of workers in the supply chain.
This leads companies to employ marketing tactics to appear more environmentally friendly and socially responsible than they truly are. They make misleading claims to appeal to conscious consumers.
Here is everything you need to know about bluewash, with some shocking examples, how you can spot businesses that are bluewashing, and what you can do about it.
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A business or organization is bluewashing when it makes misleading claims about the social responsibility of its products or services to position itself in a better light for economic gains and public image.
Bluewash is often associated with a companies' membership to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), adhering to its Ten Principles regarding strategies, policies, and procedures, and culture.
The UNGC is a voluntary initiative based on CEO commitments to implement universal sustainability principles and fundamental socially responsible policies in the areas of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption.
It's the world's largest corporate sustainability or social responsibility initiative with over 13.000 corporate participants and other stakeholders in over 170 countries that are involved and have pledged to abide by higher ethical standards respecting human and environmental rights.
While this non-binding pact aims to make business practices more ethical and sustainable, the UNGC doesn't necessarily recognize or certify that the member companies have fulfilled its Ten Principles.
Many critics believe that the UNGC fails to hold corporations accountable and leads to the issue of bluewash. Many businesses and organizations join the initiative as an excuse to claim participation in philanthropic or charity-based activities.
Critics argue that such voluntary initiatives, despite aiming to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, are merely used for economic gains and public relations to improve corporate images.
Many companies associate themselves with the UNGC to only demonstrate corporate social responsibility and sustainable governance and give off the image that they have ethical standards.
That's why many academic scholars and human rights activists criticize the UNGC for lacking mechanisms to guarantee and check that member corporations are following the Ten Principles.
The UNGC has goodwill but also a bad reputation. Its implementation is lacking, confusing, inconsistent, and controversial, leading to many companies misusing the UNGC as a public relations instrument for bluewash.
Bluewash vs greenwash
Bluewash refers to misleading claims about the social responsibility of a company's products or services, whereas greenwash concerns the environmental benefits.
Bluewash and greenwash are used by businesses and organizations to respectively appear to be more socially responsible and environmentally friendly than they truly are.
Greenwash and bluewash are ways for companies to differentiate from the competition. By promising a more eco-friendly and ethical product or service, businesses catch customers' attention.
Greenwash and bluewash are marketing strategies used to increase sales and position brands in a better light. For consumers, it's very challenging to tell if an environmental or social claim is accurate or not.
That's why so many companies make false claims and easily get away with it. Consumers often make buying decisions based on their emotions. Greenwash and bluewash make use of that behavior and tap into the good conscience of consumers.
Consumers all over the world are becoming increasingly more aware of the alarming rate we are currently destroying our home, the Earth. They care for the environment and society's bigger issues.
Companies want to be perceived as making positive environmental and social impacts to appeal to the conscious customer. The green movement is booming. Consumers are realizing the disastrous impact the growing economy has on the planet, underserved communities, and ecosystems.
Adopting green and socially responsible practices in business is becoming a profitable strategy. Since consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable and ethical products, businesses expect high growth from a favorable image and public support.
Many brands and retailers market themselves as eco-friendly and socially responsible when they are not. This is called greenwash and bluewash and serves to appeal to conscious consumers.
They claim to reduce their environmental and social impacts when in fact a large proportion of their activities remains detrimental to the planet and its inhabitants.
Many companies employ farmers and workers from the poorest countries. They exploit local communities without any social or environmental stewardship. They make products under poor working conditions, without renewable energy, and using toxic chemicals.
Greenwash and bluewash aren't recent phenomenons. Already in the 1980s, the demand for eco-friendly and socially responsible products was rising. Many cases of greenwash or bluewash were reported.
Since then, presenting a sustainable and ethical image has become more and more strategic for businesses and organizations worldwide. Let's take a closer look at what you can do about it.
How to spot bluewash
You can easily spot bluewash by identifying claims that aren't backed by any evidence. A business or organization is bluewashing when it claims a product or service is socially responsible without any supporting information.
Many businesses are still bluewashing today to appeal to conscious consumers, especially in the fashion industry. The market for ethical and sustainable products is growing rapidly, creating new opportunities for businesses.
Companies want to appear eco-friendly and socially responsible by claiming that their products have a lower impact on the environment or local communities when, in reality, their activities remain highly polluting and irresponsible.
Numerous consumer protection organizations around the world warn about bluewash. They ask buyers to protect themselves from unfair and deceptive practices.
Many products and services don't have any environmental or social benefits. But companies keep marketing them as environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
They are bluewashing by only showing what consumers want to see. They aim to increase sales without considering the environment and the welfare of people first.
Deceptive claims hide what is going on behind the scenes. Claiming a product is socially responsible or ethically made without any supporting evidence or audit from third parties is misleading.
The best way to avoid bluewash is to investigate and do a bit of research. Separate the companies that are truly making efforts from those that are only pretending to enjoy higher profit margins.
As a conscious consumer, you can discern bluewash when you see:
- fluffy, words, language, or terms with no clear meaning
- dirty companies making green products
- suggestive pictures that indicate unjustified impacts
- irrelevant claims emphasizing one tiny attribute when everything else is not responsible
- a product slightly better than the rest, especially when the rest is terrible
- claims that are just not credible
- jargon or information that only a scientist could check or understand
- no proof or evidence to back up claims
- lies with totally fabricated claims or data
If you are a business or organization and want to avoid bluewashing when you market your products or services, you should:
- be as transparent as possible
- know your products' biggest impacts
- always bolster your claims with independent verification
- avoid making claims "in a vacuum" without evidence
- enable and encourage consumers to act
- understand your customers' wants and needs
- target different market segments in different ways
- anticipate game-changing technology and behaviors
- participate in rule-making at the regional, national, and international level
Companies bluewash to increase sales and position their brand in a better light. Products that are often affected by bluewash include fashion, food, automobile, consumer electronics, personal care, and cosmetics.
These are some businesses and organizations that have been accused of bluewashing in the past or recently.
1. Primark has been under public scrutiny many times over with child labor scandals. The fast-fashion retailer can offer very low prices because it employs workers from the poorest countries of the world, such as India and Cambodia, and under terrible working conditions.
2. Food and drink corporation Nestlé has been accused of using child labor, unethical production methods, and misleading marketing strategies too many times. It chose profits over the welfare of the people working for them.
3. Major fashion retailer & Other Stories used to make false production claims, pretending its products were created in Swedish factories under labor protection laws. In reality, they are designed in Sweden but produced in China, Bulgaria, and Bangladesh.
4. Cosmetics giant L'Oreal failed to combat modern slavery in its supply chains. It has been criticized for failing to disclose how it mitigates risks in its operations to ensure its supply chains are free of child labor and modern slavery.
The demand for environmentally friendly and socially responsible products continues to rise. People want products that are better for the environment and the people working in supply chains, without misleading claims or marketing messages.
Conscious consumers want to support and buy from companies they believe in. Businesses and organizations have to use accurate communication to remain credible.
The consequences of getting it wrong are seen as bluewash and damaging to reputation. Consumers are very likely to punish companies using bluewash with fewer sales.
Avoiding deceptive environmental and social claims should be a concern to all companies, especially in the apparel and textile industry.
Bluewash is already hurting so many industries as consumers are less likely to trust environmental and human rights-related claims in the future, and regulators will impose restrictions.
Bluewash also prevents the development of a new sustainable and ethical economy. It slows down sustainability and social responsibility efforts drastically.
Companies that are bluewashing make it more difficult for consumers to understand the impacts of their purchasing decisions as they struggle to differentiate between valid and invalid claims.
Businesses have a strong role to play in improving the state of the planet and its inhabitants. They have to develop and communicate their role in environmental and social stewardship to earn the trust of consumers.
More brands and retailers should step up their efforts and communicate them effectively. More sustainability-focused companies are bound to have better performance as they concentrate on long-term strategy, not just short-term gains.
We are at a critical moment in redefining the role of business in society. Improving one's environmental and social reputation should not be the end goal, but instead making a meaningful contribution toward building a sustainable future.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.